As we begin a new year, my thoughts naturally turn to travel plans for the next 12 months. Most of the fun of travelling is in the anticipation, so I am already dreaming of a long list of possible destinations. Some places may be deemed “safer” than others, but you can believe that no place is 100% safe. On the other hand, I don’t think you should ever let fear stop you from doing anything! As a woman who often travels alone, I have had to recognize that I may be viewed by some as an easier target, so I take extra precautions. The following Do’s and Don’ts are strategies that I have actually employed on my own, often solo, travels. Incorporating these simple measures allows me to relax and enjoy myself without fear, and isn’t that the whole point of a vacation?
- DO be aware of your environment. In a larger sense, check U. S. State Department advisories online before departing. On a smaller scale, be aware of what’s going on around you as you go about touring a new city. Look in store window reflections to see who’s behind you. If someone seems to be following you, or is too close behind you (for me, too close is about 3-6 feet, depending on how crowded the area is), change direction or step out of the stream of traffic and let them go by. Then continue in your original direction, some distance behind them. Make direct eye contact (to let them believe you would be able to identify them to the police) if you think someone is approaching or crowding you, do not smile. Or do smile if you want to. I just recommend against it because some take that as an invitation to approach you even more closely. This is a time to adhere to “old fashioned” courtesies, like not allowing someone to get physically close to you (such as throwing an arm over your shoulder) or suggest that you accompany them somewhere else, if you haven’t been already introduced by someone you know and trust, and who, hopefully, can accompany you. Just take inventory of what they look like and what they are wearing. They will most likely move on to a less environmentally aware target. On the other hand, if they are already robbing you, then avoid excessive eye contact as it may be viewed as a challenge at that point. If someone engages you in conversation, such as asking for directions, remain aware of other people approaching as you talk to the first person. No need to be rude, or miss out on making new friends, but just be aware. Pickpockets often work in teams, one distracting you while another picks your pocket. Friends once told me about a technique where one thief bumps into you, and their partner watches from a short distance as you instinctively touch whatever pocket or bag holds your valuables, thereby identifying which pocket to pick!
- DO separate your money (cash and credit cards) into separate bags, pockets, and money belts so that if you are robbed, you may be left with an overlooked stash. Don’t do this in public. Ideally, you would have done this even before leaving home. If possible, exchange currency before leaving your home country and after returning, so that you aren’t observed exchanging a lot of money at an automated kiosk in the airport or coming out of a currency exchange office.
- Once you’ve checked into your hotel, DON’T carry your passport on the street with you. In a foreign country, your passport is likely the MOST valuable thing you have with you. Make a copy to carry with you in case you have to show it to authorities. Hopefully your room has a secure locker in which to keep valuables. If not, the front desk of some hotels will lock up valuables for you. If there is no locker available either in your room or at the front desk, bury your passport deep within your backpack or suitcase, then chain your locked backpack or suitcase to something immobile in your room.
- Once outside, DO carry your purse on the side of you that is away from the street. Thieves have been known to approach on a bike or motorcycle on the street side and pull a bag right off of someone’s street side shoulder. Speaking of your purse, or bag of any kind, the ideal bag would zip closed and be made of durable material, like leather, or heavy canvas. Heavier material discourages the use of a sharp knife to cut the strap and take the entire bag, or slash the bottom of the bag and grab whatever falls out. As an added obstacle, I usually carry my purse or bag in front of me, with the strap diagonally across me and the closure facing in towards my body. Again, don’t carry ALL of your money and cards in one bag or pocket.
- DON’T look like a tourist. I’ve noticed that in many countries I’ve visited the local citizens take care with their appearance even if they are just out running errands. They usually don’t wear athletic wear unless they are actually working out or participating in a sport. On the other hand, I can usually pick out American tourists without too much trouble, by the shorts, running shoes and baseball caps often worn. Sometimes there are even….I shudder… sweatpants. I realize this is a gross generalization, but my point is that if a bad person can easily identify you just by your appearance as a tourist, you and your co-travelers have just become potential targets for pickpockets, con artists, even terrorists.
- DO try to fit in with the local populace. Not the same as above because this goes beyond physical appearance. You will most likely always be identifiable in some way as a foreigner, but at least avoid making it an easy determination. This takes some planning and research. Learn about the culture as much as you can before you go. Learn about what their socio-economic issues are. Learn what you can about their history and how that has shaped the collective psyche. Google whether tipping is expected at your particular destination. Sometimes tipping offends. Sometimes it offends if you DON’T tip. Knowing these little details draws less attention to you as an outsider, which makes you less of a target for con artists and thieves. If you don’t speak the language, don’t advertise that fact by speaking more loudly than everyone around you.
- DO minimize luggage. Nothing says “I’m new in town” like the sound of suitcase wheels on cobblestones. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but try to bring only what you can carry, as in a backpack or duffel bag. Even a large backpack is better than a smaller suitcase being dragged a mile through the streets from the train station to the hotel. If you have a lot of luggage and you can spend the money, take a taxi to and from the hotel to avoid drawing attention to yourself on the street as a visitor.
- DO try to memorize how to get where you want to go before heading out the door and down the street. If you must stop and review your map/gps, stop with your back against a wall, take inventory of who’s around, especially if someone stopped at the same time you did, and try not to be obvious, such as shouting into your phone, “DIRECTIONS TO MUSEUMS NEAR ME NOW!”. If possible, you could go into a shop and discreetly ask the cashier for directions. You could also take a coffee break and use the opportunity to sit and look at your gps away from the open sidewalk.
- DO make sure that someone knows your whereabouts and has your travel itinerary. Check in with someone back home at designated times so that someone will know as soon as possible if you aren’t where you planned on being and could alert authorities if needed.
- DO employ company in areas where solo travel may not be advised (ie hiking through a rainforest). Some hotels and tour companies offer paid guides and/or translators who could accompany you places where you might not normally go alone, even out in the evenings if exploring “nightlife” is your thing.
The key to all of this is to be cautious but not afraid. These are all measures that I have employed at different times in various situations, BUT I don’t walk around nervous and jumpy, checking store window reflections and giving strangers hard stares as I pass them on the street. Mostly, I listen to my gut and let that drive how cautious I am.
Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought as you plan your vacations this year. If you have employed other security measures on the road, please share with our fellow travelers in the comments section below!